If you are a fan of the frigid temperatures we’ve recently been having and the sighting of snowflakes sends you into ecstasy, then read no further. For those, however, who don’t appreciate the shorter days and the thick blanket of snow that engulfs the Brainerd area, hopefully you’ll get something out of this article that will leave you feeling just a little bit more grateful.
According to Rick Hanson, psychologist and expert on resilience and hard-wiring happiness, having a positive outlook on life -- despite the curveballs it throws at you -- is a skill that can be developed through the practice of gratitude. Developing an attitude of gratitude will not only improve your mental health, it will lead to greater joy and happiness.
For a lot of us, practicing gratitude isn’t easy and may be unnatural. Generally, we don’t practice gratitude because of how our brains are wired. That’s because the alarm bell of our brains -- the amygdala (an almond-shaped section of the brain responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events) -- is most reactive to bad news. Once the amygdala sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in our memory -- in contrast to positive events and experiences.
Our brains are Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences.
That's why researchers have found that humans generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.
What we think and focus on is what we remember. Your thoughts shape your brain and create neural pathways. These neural pathways are like grooves. The more we think or behave in the same way, the deeper the grooves, or neural pathways, and the harder it is to change. Our thinking and behaving get hard-wired into our brain, and thus become “habits.”
So, what can we do to rewire our brains and create a new habit, one that focuses on the good? This comes from Rick Hanson, New York Times best-selling author and Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
First, be mindful: our brains are wired to make us afraid, wired so that we walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety to keep us on alert. And wired to zero in on any bad news, to tune out good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive.
Second, embrace everyday experiences and turn them into resources - like confidence, self-worth, and emotional balance – so that they are hardwired into your brain.
Third, use positive experiences to heal, calm, and replace negativity in your mind. Accept life on its terms. Yes, bad things happen to good people, but use these experiences as opportunities.
Finally, replace feelings of inadequacy with self-confidence; loneliness with feelings of being loved; discontent and frustration with feelings of gratitude. Remember, our past need not determine our future.
Why Should We Practice Gratitude?
Because it will change your life for the better! Hundreds of studies have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude. Our happiness is no one’s responsibility but our own. When we stop reacting to the people and circumstances around us, we take back control of our life and steer it in the direction we want to go.
Research shows that practicing gratitude for a month is likely to become a habit, resulting in changes in the way neurons in our brain fire into more positive automatic thinking and behavior patterns. The longer we practice, the stronger those positive patterns and feelings become. In turn, we feel better both mentally and physically.
But just thinking about practicing gratitude and its benefits will not change your life. If you want your life to get better, you have to make a change, i.e., you have to take action. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Here are some of the many ways to start practicing gratitude and begin to feel the physical, mental and emotional benefits:
Exercise 1: Take a Break from Complaining: For 24 hours challenge yourself not to complain – about anything or anyone. Carry a piece of paper with you and jot down each time you complain and each time you catch yourself complaining. Likely results: you don’t usually have much to complain about; you complain frequently; your complaints are puny; or, you take a lot for granted.
Exercise 2: Take a Gratitude Walk: spend quiet, contemplative time in green spaces, gardens, parks, woods or mountains. Focus on your five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch). Nature is good for us and has both long and short term mental and physical health benefits.
Exercise 3: Gratitude Journal: keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for has been shown to reduce stress, increase happiness and improve self-esteem. Journaling tips: 1) spend between 10-20 minutes a day; 2) don’t rush to write down the first thing that comes to your mind; 3) think about what you’re grateful for; 4) writing about the people who you’re grateful for is more powerful than writing about things; 5) explain in detail, why you’re grateful. If you’re grateful for a friend who is nice, describe what they do that’s nice and why that makes you grateful; and 6) keep your journal somewhere where you’ll see it and write in it consistently.
Exercise 4: Focus on What’s Right: On a piece of paper, make three columns. First, list all the material things you’re glad you have. Second, list all the people you appreciate. Third, list anything else that doesn’t fit into the first or second columns. Within the next 24 hours, read your list four times: after lunch, after dinner, before going to sleep, and the next morning before going to work. When we focus on what’s right in our lives instead of what’s wrong, life improves considerably.
Exercise 5: ABC’s of Gratitude: I came up with this idea several years ago when I realized the notebook I used for journaling contained 26 lines on every page; the same number as letters of the alphabet. I write the letters of the alphabet down the side of the page and then write something I am grateful for that begins with each letter of the alphabet. Coming up with something that begins with “Q,” “X,” and “Z” can be challenging, but not impossible; think positively!)
Exercise 6: Gratitude Letter: Grab a pen and some paper and write a letter of appreciation to someone who has had an impact on your life or who you appreciate having in your life. Write a letter with specific details about what you appreciate about them or what they did that impacted you. Whether you share the letter or not, it can have a lasting impact, increasing your happiness while reducing depressing thoughts.
Exercise 7: Gratitude Vision Board: This is a visual exercise in gratitude that produces the “feel good” hormones, serotonin and dopamine. It’s fun, inexpensive and easy to create; all you need is a piece of poster board, some magazines or photos, scissors and glue. Cut out pictures and words that depict what you are grateful for: family, friends, pets, hobbies, positive feelings, etc. Kept in view, it can be a daily reminder of blessings and provides a necessary pick-me-up for those times when you are stuck in negativity.
Exercise 8: Sunday Countdown: The average life expectancy in the U.S.A. for men is 76 years and for women it’s 81 years. Take your age and subtract it from your life expectancy. Multiply this number by the number of Sundays in a year (52) to arrive at the number of Sundays you have left to live. For example, if you are female and 50 years old, subtract 50 from 81 and you get 31; 31 x 52 = approximately 1612 Sundays left. What if you were to calculate how many Thanksgivings, or Christmases you have left? If you are male and 50 years old, subtract that number from 76 and you have approximately 26 Thanksgivings and Christmases left. Hmmm…is this a lot, or too few? How do you want to choose to live the rest of your life?
Exercise 9: Three Good Things: “Three Good Things” note pads are available FREE from Crow Wing Energized. Every night before bed, write down three things for which you’re thankful. Scientific research suggests writing down what you’re grateful for, rather than just thinking about it, imprints it in your brain and is more effective in creating new neural pathways and increased optimism.
Exercise 10: Finally, if all of the above fail, “act as if.” In other words, FAKE it! Force gratitude until it becomes habitual. “Thank God, life and the universe for everyone and everything sent your way. There is no situation or circumstance so small or large that is not susceptible to gratitude’s power. Gratitude helps us stop trying to control outcomes. It is the key that unlocks positive energy in our life. It is the alchemy that turns problems into blessings, and the unexpected into gifts. Say ‘thank you’ until you mean it. If you say it long enough, you will believe it.” (Melody Beattie)
The key with these exercises is to savor positive emotions and retrain your brain to remember good things. But don’t take my word for it…TRY IT!
“Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some” -- Charles Dickens.
Beatrice Comty-Charnock, MA, LMFT, LADC, is a dually licensed marriage and family therapist and alcohol and drug counselor, and a certified lifestyle coach in the Brainerd area and serves on the Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group. Beatrice provides counseling to adolescents and adults dealing with anger, anxiety, co-dependency, depression, grief/loss, parenting difficulties, relationship issues, separation/divorce, and substance use. Additionally, Beatrice speaks on topics such as An Attitude of Gratitude, Building Resiliency in Children and Adults, How to Resolve Conflict in Marriages, and Developing Proper Sleep Hygiene. Beatrice can be reached at 218-838-3829 or email@example.com.